Conditions for peace talks set by Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing indicate problems ahead for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as she tries to convene a “21st-century Panglong” conference to include all ethnic armed groups.
Speaking to a select group of reporters in Nay Pyi Taw on May 13, the senior general said he had told State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi he wanted “eternal peace” and that the Tatmadaw would work toward this over the new government’s five-year term. He also made clear that he intended to see out that term himself.
“The door is open to those who wish to sign the peace agreement,” he was quoted as saying by the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar at his first press conference since the new government took over in late March. The Myanmar Times was not invited.
The senior general said the military would cooperate on holding a “21st-century Panglong conference” proposed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. However his comments demonstrated the Tatmadaw did not intend to be reduced to a secondary role in the peace process. The government and the military needed to “coordinate”, he said.
The Tatmadaw commander laid out seemingly tough conditions for including three ethnic armed groups that the previous government and military had shut out of last year’s “nationwide” ceasefire agreement.
The Global New Light of Myanmar quoted him as saying those three groups – made up of ethnic Chinese, Ta’ang and Rakhine fighters – must first “give up their weapons”.
Alluding to the military’s demands last year that the three groups surrender before joining the peace conference, the commander-in-chief added, “We won’t use the term ‘surrender’ in order not to offend their dignity. But we just want them to abandon their arms,” he said.
The three groups are the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army fighting in the Kokang border area near China, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army based in northern Shan State, and the Arakan Army which is engaging the Tatmadaw in Rakhine State but has its main base in Kachin State.
Political commentator U Yan Myo Thein said conditions set by Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing were “not the right approach” to the peace process.
“It should not be just about talks. The Tatmadaw must show their real desire for achieving peace. The challenges the new government will have to confront will involve a new kind of complexity and can even push the government into a difficult situation,” he said.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has proposed a Panglong-style conference named after the historic 1947 talks held by her father, Bogyoke Aung San, which resulted in an agreement with leaders of three ethnic groups on full autonomy for “Frontier Areas”. The state counsellor says she wants all parties to take part, while indicating that the process may take several stages.
Her plans include establishing a National Reconciliation and Peace Center as secretariat. On May 14 she was joined by U Tin Myo Win, her personal doctor and peace process liaison officer, on a visit to the former Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC) in Yangon which was dissolved by then-president U Thein Sein at the end of his administration.
Assets of the MPC were transferred by presidential decree to new institutions to be run by former officials and advisers. The European Union has been negotiating for internationally donated assets to be transferred to the government’s new centre.
U Zaw Htay, government spokesperson, said the state counsellor heard explanations from former MPC personnel on the process of transferring initiatives and assets in the state-owned compound.
Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing said the 1947 Panglong conference was held to unify the country with the ethnic nationalities and that the 21st-century Panglong conference should be held for the same purpose. But, according to Myawaddy, he warned the ethnic groups to work for the country and not seek political advantage from the process.
Last October’s nationwide ceasefire pact was signed by just eight ethnic armed groups, with only two of serious military relevance. Myanmar’s biggest non-state groups, including the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Kachin Independence Army, stayed out of the accord, citing exclusion of the three allied armed groups as the reason.
Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing explicitly ruled out groups taking part in political dialogue without first signing the nationwide ceasefire deal, as the UWSA wants.
He also said the eight ethnic groups that signed the nationwide agreement would have to engage in a process of DDR-SSR: disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, and security sector reform.
U Than Soe Naing, a political commentator, said he had seen a slight positive shift in the military’s stance toward reconciling with the non-signatory groups.
“It does not mean that the groups have to surrender their arms to the Tatmadaw. But they have to surrender their mindset and principles of solving political problems by means of arms. Within five years after having initial steps, DDR-SSR processes are inevitable,” he said.
But he also questioned the contradictions between the military’s talk of peace while continuing offensives in border areas.
Tar Pan La, head of the TNLA foreign relations department, told The Myanmar Times that the Tatmadaw should change its own mindset. Calls to surrender arms or principles would not work, he said.
The former Palaung State Liberation Army had surrendered arms to the government in 2005, he noted. “But it did not solve the political problems and ethnic equality issues. As it did not work, under such circumstances, we are doing what we can to achieve our political goals,” he said, referring to a rift within the ethnic Ta’ang that led to the formation of the TNLA which continued its conflict.